Monday, August 23, 2010

Happy new year!

Forgot that gray day in January. To me, the new year begins when school bells ring, buses roll and kids strap on their new backpacks.

In honor of the school year starting Wednesday, let's take a break from the politics and policies that divide us and offer a salute to fresh starts and high hopes.

What are your most vivid memories of the opening days of school? (Think of it as a challenge, like haiku: Write without mentioning Peter Gorman, student assignment or Teach for America.)

Mine would have to be starting sixth grade at Maple Crest Middle School in Kokomo, Ind. I was leaving a shoebox-size elementary school that had separate entrances for girls and boys. Not only did we walk to school, we walked home for lunch. (Yes, our moms were at home to make us sandwiches, and yes, I'm old as dirt.)

Now I was about to start riding a bus, eating in a cafeteria, changing classes and using a locker. Oh, and we'd moved across town that summer, so none of my old friends would be at my new school.

Standing at the bus stop that first morning, I was scared to the point of queasiness. But I was also as excited as I'd ever been in my 11 years. Even that young, I knew I was ready for something new.

Maybe it was a first step toward a career in journalism, because the pattern has lasted for decades: I still prefer a nerve-jangling challenge to comfortable boredom.

So, how about you? Teachers, I'd love to hear how that first day feels from the other side of the desk.

Footnote no. 1: I'll be sitting out the opening of school this year. No, I'm not taking on a new career challenge. Just taking a brief medical leave, and it turns out surgeons' schedules trump the school calendar.

In my absence, look for schools coverage from Mark Price, who does great work covering nonprofits and charities, and online reporter Steve Lyttle, who consistently writes more stories than three normal people. Please share tips and comments with them -- and -- or with editor Mike Gordon, I expect to be back to reporting and blogging before long.

Footnote no. 2: For those who followed the recent blog discussion of dress-code drama, look for Cristina Bolling's article in Thursday's Style section.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

East Meck: Not so dinky

It was just about a year ago that the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board kicked off months of melodrama by launching a last-ditch effort to find more students for East Mecklenburg High in 2010-11.

Members had just approved controversial boundaries for the new Rocky River High, and projections called for East to shrink from 2,100 to roughly 1,400 this year, when the new boundaries take effect. The fear was that East Meck would lose academic ground and community support if it lost too many students and teachers. The board ended up shuffling boundaries for International Baccalaureate magnet programs at East, Myers Park and Harding.

As the start of school approaches, CMS projections call for East to have 1,836 students, including 745 in the magnet. If those numbers materialize (official tallies are taken in September), East will have the district's largest high-school IB program, with Harding second at 731. Other IB magnet numbers as of CMS's second lottery are 476 at North Meck; 335 at Myers Park, which lost the ability to take magnet students from outside its zone; and 159 at West Charlotte, says Magnet Director Jeff Linker.

Kim Lanphear, one of the parent leaders of Myers Park's IB program, says the school hated to lose its out-of-zone students, but the program is expected to thrive. Students who aren't officially part of the IB program can get permission to take some IB classes.

Harding faces the greatest uncertainty. As a full magnet (IB is combined with math/science), it's one of four high schools that lost neighborhood busing. The school is already down from a peak enrollment of more than 1,440 a few years ago to just over 1,000, thanks partly to academic admission requirements added in recent years. If more families pull out because they can't get their kids to and from school or shuttle stops, Harding could shrink further.

A few other magnet updates, courtesy of Linker: First Ward Elementary, which is picking up the arts magnet that used to be at Dilworth, is expected to have 625 students. Linker says most of the Dilworth students and faculty moved to First Ward, and some extra students were admitted because the building is bigger.

The math/science magnet at Morehead and the Spanish-immersion magnets at Collinswood and Oaklawn will have their first sixth-graders this year; all were formerly elementary schools. Sedgefield Middle will debut a seventh-grade Montessori magnet class of 20 to 25 students (moving up from Park Road and Highland Mills, which added sixth-graders last year).

And the Military and Global Leadership Academy at Marie G. Davis will have its first graduating class this year. There are only about a dozen seniors, Linker says, and the school remains short of its goal of 100 students per grade level. But Linker says the lower grades of the combined middle/high school are starting to get close.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Change coming at MeckEd

Kathy Ridge, the former banker who has led MeckEd for a little more than two years, has told the group's board she's ready to try something new.

Ridge says she's starting to scout her own options -- something related to education, which could include running for office, writing, producing documentaries or working for another nonprofit -- while harboring high hopes for the public-schools advocacy group.

"I am not grabbing the beers and going out the emergency chute," she said, referring to the fabled farewell of an angry flight attendant.

MeckEd, also known as Mecklenburg Citizens for Public Education, evolved out of public angst over Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools leadership five years ago. Business and political leaders created a task force to recommend changes in CMS. Afterward, the task force merged with the Charlotte Chamber's education arm and an existing education-advocacy foundation to create MeckEd. Its goal: To serve as a critical friend to CMS, providing advice and support.

The group got off to a rocky start, with a huge board and a first director who didn't last long. A streamlined board chaired by Krista Tillman of Queens University of Charlotte hired Ridge in May 2008.

Since then MeckEd has raised $3 million for CMS leadership and staffing initiatives, held training sessions for prospective advocates and board candidates, held book clubs and brought speakers to town to get community leaders talking about a vision for education.

Ridge says she's hoping for an unhurried transition, one that gives her time to scout new possibilities and allows the board time to find a strong successor.

Changes in leadership tend to spark new thinking about a group's vision and strategy. It'll be interesting to see how the corporate and advocacy community sees its role in public education evolving.
Tillman, who says she has "an extremely heavy heart" over Ridge's departure, expects to start a search next month.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Schools Tools makes Charlotte cool

One of the things I like about Charlotte is the way people mobilize to make sure all kids have the supplies they need for the start of school.

The School Tools drive got started in 1996, a year after a public housing project lost its sponsor for a back-to-school festival. The organizers of that small event put out a call for donations, and it seemed like half of Charlotte came by with book bags, notebooks and crayons.

I was covering children's issues at the time, and wanted to seize that momentum by giving readers a roundup of places to donate the following summer. Trouble was, no one was doing a big collection.

Enter Cynthia Marshall, director of Cities In Schools (it's now Communities In Schools, and Marshall has retired). She saw the spark of potential and whipped it to a blaze, teaming up with Hands On Charlotte to launch a regional collection drive for needy students.

In the last 13 years, School Tools has given literally tons of back-to-school goodies to children of poverty. The recession took a bite out of donations last year, and need continues to grow.

This year's drive is in full swing, sponsored by WSOC-TV, Communities in Schools and Classroom Central. It covers 22 counties, with collection points at BB&T branches, Subaru dealerships, WSOC-TV at 1901 N. Tryon St. or Classroom Central at 2116 Wilkinson Blvd. Easiest of all, put supplies at your mailbox on Saturday and your postal carrier will pick them up (click "Postal Collection Day" at the link above for a list of participating zip codes).

I know some online commenters see this as a handout to irresponsible parents, who will spend their money unwisely while others do their children's back-to-school shopping. They're free not to donate. I figure those of us born to loving parents and stable families have already won life's biggest lottery; it's a privilege to share a little joy with kids who didn't fare as well.

And I think it says something pretty amazing about a community to see such a tangible tribute to the value we put on learning.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Grading LA's teachers -- and Charlotte's

A Los Angeles Times article rating the effectiveness of teachers there is creating a lot of buzz around the country -- and getting close attention in the top offices of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools.

The newspaper commissioned a researcher with the Rand Corp. to calculate the "value added" ratings for more than 6,000 LA elementary-school teachers, based on test scores going back seven years. Those whose students gained more than expected had high ratings; those whose student gained little or regressed rated low. The Times plans to publish a database listing each teacher's rating later this month, but first is giving teachers a chance to view their ratings and comment.

The Los Angeles Unified School District has no plans to use such data. But CMS does.

Value-added ratings are part of Superintendent Peter Gorman's plan to roll out teacher performance pay in the coming years (he expects to announce a timeline this fall). He calls Rand "a very reputable company" that CMS has worked with, though he isn't familiar enough with the formula used in LA to say how close it might come to what CMS eventually develops.

He's been fascinated to see what the newspaper came up with -- and watch the reaction.

"Contrary to popular belief, the best teachers were not concentrated in schools in the most affluent neighborhoods, nor were the weakest instructors bunched in poor areas," the article says. "Rather, these teachers were scattered throughout the district. The quality of instruction typically varied far more within a school than between schools."

Even in high-performing schools, principals weren't always good at sizing up which teachers were effective, the reporters found. Highly effective teachers vary in style and personality, but "perhaps not surprisingly, they shared a tendency to be strict, maintain high standards and encourage critical thinking."

The LA teachers' union is pushing for a mass boycott of the Times, calling the publication of the database "an irresponsible, offensive intrusion into (teachers') professional life that will do nothing to improve student learning."

In Charlotte, Gorman says he's convinced some type of value-added rating should be part -- but not all -- of what determines a teacher's pay.

"One of the discussions we've had: As you calculate a value-added, is it a public record?" Gorman said. "And if it's a public record, do you get parents saying, 'I want so-and-so because they have the highest value-added?' We're paying close attention to how this is playing out."

Even among the nation's education reporters, opinions are mixed about the merit of listing individual ratings, given the limitations of testing to size up what kids have learned. (Read what Linda Perlstein, public editor for the Education Writers Association, has to say about the article here.)

Gorman says he and his staff "purposefully slowed down" since announcing plans to push performance pay in CMS. He said he wants to make sure local teachers and principals have a say, and wants to learn from other districts' experiences.

"This is a situation to watch from afar," he said.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Who's running CMS HR?

A Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools employee who asked not to be named e-mailed recently to ask why Chief Human Resource Officer Maurice Ambler had "disappeared from the 2010-11 directories without any explanation."

"During this critical time of hiring teachers, filling vacancies, and determining what positions will be reinstated with the additional money CMS just received, how can the district not have an HR point person?" the e-mail asked.

As I've reported before, Ambler's contract expired June 30 and wasn't renewed. Superintendent Peter Gorman has declined to provide the reason; personnel decisions are considered confidential.

Executive Director Kim Brazzell has been acting as interim director since Ambler left, with Chief Operating Officer Hugh Hattabaugh overseeing the personnel system, Gorman says. Meanwhile, former principal Mike Mathews continues to serve in a human-resources consulting job that was created for him, making more (almost $143,000) than Ambler was.

Gorman says he decided it would be less disruptive to find a new HR boss after schools open. He said he expects to do a search and hire a local candidate.

Meanwhile, expect to hear updates this week about any vacancies that are lingering as CMS and other N.C. public schools approach the Aug. 25 opening day. Unresolved questions about how much county and federal money will be available for hiring teachers have left everyone wondering exactly how many classroom jobs will be filled, and when.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Deja vu in Wake

Now that Wake County Public Schools are moving to a neighborhood-based student assignment plan, it seems that arguments are breaking out over which neighborhoods should get priority for new schools. Sound familiar, anyone?

Read the Wake Education Partnership's account of the dispute (along with an update on the latest round of arrests from the school board meeting) here.

Dress-code blues

So you're out shopping for the start of school. Your son just has to have a T-shirt with a clever but risque saying, while your daughter is smitten with a revealing spaghetti-strap top. And there you are, caught in the crossfire between youthful fashion and school dress codes.

My colleague Cristina Bolling is working on a back-to-school story on that very subject. She's seeking parents, teachers, students and administrators to weigh in on fashion flash points: Which forbidden items create the most conflict? What would adults like to see banned? Have students found creative work-arounds that let them sport trendy stuff without getting busted, such as wearing leggings under too-short skirts?

She didn't mention it, but I suspect a few of you have thoughts about how teachers dress, or ought to dress, as well.

There are a couple of ways to weigh in: Post here, and we'll all enjoy the conversation. Or e-mail Cristina at; I'm sure she's especially eager to hear from people willing to be quoted in her story.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Assignment apathy?

A handful of speakers turned out last night to issue dire warnings about the guiding principles for student assignment the board ultimately approved.

Most were African Americans concerned that the emphasis on schools close to home will leave schools serving black and impoverished kids stripped of support, clout and good teachers.

"Inner-city low-income neighborhoods should be afforded the same opportunities and rights to a first-class education as the suburbs," said Levester Flowers, one such speaker.

But Bolyn McClung, a white guy from suburban Pineville, also warned that the plan would be "the mistake of a lifetime" that "dooms CMS to an 'us vs. them' world."

McClung's point was not so much that neighborhood schools are bad as that making any new system of student assignment work requires massive community commitment. Before the meeting, he reminded me of the way Charlotte's best and brightest rallied to craft a workable system of desegregation after the Swann vs. Board of Education court order in the 1970s.

The last paragraph of the new document calls for the community to work with CMS to make sure all kids get a strong education. But McClung questioned whether that support is anywhere near reality.

The rows of empty seats behind him seemed to affirm his point. It was a stark contrast with Wake's Tuesday meeting. There, protests and arrests related to student assignment have become as routine as the pledge of allegiance at CMS meetings.

It's worth noting that hundreds turned out for CMS forums on the student assignment revamp in June and July. But the sense of anxiety and urgency that led business and political leaders to create task forces to help CMS just a few years ago does seem to have faded.

McClung told the board that at the very least, new student-assignment principles needed to be approved unanimously to signal real support. Instead, they squeaked by 5-3, the narrowest possible victory on a nine-member board. Trent Merchant, who was absent, has been critical of the whole process, and even some of the "yes" voters spent more time voicing reservations than applauding a new vision.

Board Chair Eric Davis, who's been the driving force behind this review, said the new document is "not perfect, (but) I think it's a movement in the right direction." He cited that final statement calling for community partnership as one of its most promising aspects.

So what lies ahead? I generally avoid predictions, but I'll make one: Once CMS staff rolls out plans for boundary changes and closings that hit specific schools, "apathy" will not be the operative word.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Buses, buildings and budgets

The quest to sort out Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' plans for 2011-12 resumes this afternoon. On the agenda for a special session from 1-5 p.m.: Transportation, building use and costs and savings of possible actions.

This could plunge into meaty matters: How will CMS gauge which schools need relief from crowding, and which are so underfilled they ought to close? How much busing is the district willing to pay for? What's this all going to mean to taxpayers?

Or it could be a review of existing data. I don't expect officials to roll out proposals for specific schools yet -- but my crystal ball hasn't been all that clear when it comes to this review, which started in June and is expected to continue through November.

The special session will not be broadcast, but it's open to the public, in Room 267 of the Government Center, 600 E. Fourth St.

At 6 p.m. today, the board will start its regular meeting in the Government Center's meeting chamber. This one will air live on CMS-TV (Cable 3) and be available online afterward. First up are public comments on any matter.

The main agenda item is a vote on principles and priorities for student assignment in 2011 (board members took a straw poll on this last week).

Read all available documents, including the guiding principles and priorities the board will vote on, here.

And because we can all use a good laugh, here's a bonus video that's making the rounds as a suggested solution to CMS's busing challenges.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Schools looking shabby?

I've been hearing complaints off and on for months about the declining state of maintenance at some Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools. At first they focused on athletic facilities; now I'm hearing the lawns at some schools are starting to look like an African savannah.

CMS started cutting maintenance and groundskeeping staff in 2009 as a means of tightening the belt without hitting classrooms. The challenge is, the district has 170-plus schools and I don't have time to scour the county making drop-in visits.

Many of you have first-hand experience with schools. What are you seeing? Are conditions bad, and if so, are there specific schools and locations we should check?

If you have pictures of problems, e-mail them to me at (please size them down for e-mail to avoid overloading my limited inbox).

Friday, August 6, 2010

Cute kids and graduates

It was a treat to be greeted by a crowd of smiling fourth- and fifth-graders at Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' news conference on ABC results, held at Thomasboro Elementary. Sometimes we need a reminder that behind all these data dumps are real kids who deserve a bright future. These particular young folks were wrapping up a summer leadership program, designed to help the high-poverty westside school build a better climate for learning and make sure students don't lose academic ground during the summer.

Having said that, there's still more interesting data online as part of the ABC/No Child Left Behind release. I'm especially interested in the graduation rates, which proved something of a shock for CMS in 2009. The Observer will be circling back to that topic in the near future, but the numbers provide some interesting insights.

The main measure is the four-year graduation rate, tallying what percent of the class that enters high school graduates on time four years later. CMS had 9,760 first-time freshmen in 2005-06, with 6,450 of them graduating in 2009, a 66 percent on-time graduation rate.

The state also tracks students who graduate within five years. The new report shows that by 2010, another 385 of those CMS students -- and more than 3,300 students statewide -- had earned a diploma. That pushed CMS's five-year rate to 70 percent, still below the state's five-year average of 75 percent.

This year 70 percent of CMS students and 74 percent of N.C. students got their diplomas in four years. CMS saw gains in grad rates for all groups, but especially significant ones for black and low-income students, who are at special risk for dropping out. However, the Hispanic graduation rate sagged in CMS, and the district remains below state averages for the at-risk groups.

Eighty-five percent of CMS's white students graduated on time in 2010, above the state average of 80 percent for white students and CMS's 2009 rate of 81 percent.

Since Wake/CMS comparisons seem to be the hot topic (look for more on that in the near future, too), I'll note that Wake's overall 2010 four-year rate of 78 percent tops CMS, as do Wake's graduation rates for black and white students. For Hispanic and low-income teens the two megadistricts are tied and below the state average.

Get details on graduation rates for all N.C. schools and districts here.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Good work. No bonus.

North Carolina will release its ABC report on test scores today. Details for all schools (including charters) are now available here.

Based on early results reported by Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Wake and other districts, it's safe to predict statewide gains on many academic measures.

But no matter how good the results are, teachers won't collect any cash. The ABC bonus program rolled out in the 1990s, offering up to $750 for teachers at schools that met state goals for student progress and $1,500 each at schools that exceeded the goals. But for the last two years, it has fallen victim to budget cuts. CMS has cut local bonuses based on test scores, too.

That's a kick in the pants for teachers who have been through another tough year, though many may agree with sacrificing bonuses to save jobs. Making things worse: The state "carrot" may be gone, but the federal "stick" remains.

High-poverty schools that repeatedly fail to meet goals set for the No Child Left Behind act face penalties that include being forced to close or replace staff. Most would agree those penalties haven't been particularly effective in forcing schools to improve. It's pretty clear by now that mandating universal competence by 2014 was a bold vision that won't translate to reality.

The act is overdue for revision; CMS's Peter Gorman and other big-city superintendents were in Washington on Monday talking to lawmakers and federal officials about ways to make it more effective. But until that happens, the byzantine "AYP" rating system keeps lumbering along, dragging a set of labels and penalties with it.

For a primer on understanding the ABCs, NCLB and the charts rating each school, click here.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

CMS assignment: Neighborhoods top priority

Update at 6 p.m.: With most members sounding more weary than enthusiastic, the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board tentatively agreed today to support Board Chair Eric Davis's 11th try at drafting guiding principals for an overhaul of student assignment.

Read the draft.

Members rated the four numbered items at the end: Neighborhood schools, stability/predictability, diversity and effective use of buildings and transportation. Those items landed in the order they're numbered. Keeping kids close to home and neighborhoods intact was top priority for six of nine members. Diversity was top priority for three: Tom Tate, Richard McElrath and Joyce Waddell.

The guiding principles define diversity in a way that many members called vague and confusing: "The student assignment plan will reflect the demographics of the school feeder areas in order to create diverse learning environments that best prepare students to live in our increasingly diverse country and to compete successfully in the global workforce."

But the "decision matrix" defines it more precisely as "creating a relative balance of economically disadvantaged students."

Magnets aren't in the matrix at all, though the principles set academic standards for magnets to survive. Some members wondered whether that could put current programs at risk.

There's plenty of work ahead. Davis may tinker with the draft before an Aug. 10 vote. Members could still lobby and change their minds. And Superintendent Peter Gorman said he still needs clear direction on how the board wants to promote diversity.

The goal: Clear plans for school closings, boundary decisions and academic progress in 2011-12, with votes done by November.

Monday, August 2, 2010

More on Teach For America

After I blogged about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools' study of Teach For America, Superintendent Peter Gorman suggested I look at another TFA study, this one done by UNC researchers.

He passed along a PowerPoint summary of that study, presented to the UNC Board of Governors in April.

His tip landed after I'd finished Sunday's story (and four weeks after I started asking CMS for information about the costs and benefits of TFA). I'm still trying to track a full report. But there's clearly a lot of interest in this topic, so I'm sharing what I've got.

Update at 5 p.m.: Go to this link and click the first report, on "Teacher Portals," for the full study. Thanks to lead reasearcher Gary Henry of UNC Chapel Hill for a quick response. It's 63 pages and I haven't read it yet, so the rest of this is still based on the PowerPoint.

The study looked at Teach For America recruits in CMS and 12 rural districts in eastern North Carolina, comparing them with teachers trained through the UNC system, those from private schools in state, those hired from out of state, and N.C. Teaching Fellows, who earn scholarships in return for four years of teaching in-state.

That study found that TFA teachers got better results on several middle- and high-school exams than teachers who came through the traditional UNC route. The gap appears to be biggest in middle-school math, where the slide show notes that "TFA corps members increase student test scores for middle school math by approximately ½ year of learning." In elementary school and some secondary subjects, the two groups came out about the same.

Out-of-state teachers underperformed those trained through UNC in four of 11 areas tested, with no significant difference in the others, the study found. CMS has one of the highest concentrations of out-of-state teachers, the study says.

Data on Teaching Fellows appears to be even more mixed, and it's a bit hard to decipher from the PowerPoint (such presentations always feel to me like trying to read someone else's notes).